JoJo Hermann: A Bayou Gratitude

By: Jonathan Stumpf

JoJo Hermann by Dave Vann
In 2004, when Widespread Panic took an 18-month absence from touring, keyboardist John "JoJo" Hermann wasted little time getting together an assemblage of musicians to perform Professor Longhair material in a relaxed setting. "[It was just] something to keep my chops up," says Hermann, "something I always dreamed of, but never had the time [for]." What started on Fat Tuesday of that year has now become an almost annual occurrence for Hermann and his Mardi Gras Band. While the term "tour" is used loosely - a week at the height of ski season in Colorado and some one-off gigs in Nashville - the Mardi Gras Band does have plans for a vinyl-only release and shows no signs of slowing even though Panic is back on a somewhat normal touring schedule.

At 46, Hermann credits most New Orleans-style musicians for his avoidance of a life of beggary, which is why after this Mardi Gras Band tour - watch for new Dr. John covers this go around - he'll be hooking up with Mac himself to do some work for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. But for now, Hermann is looking forward to the Colorado run and took time to catch up with JamBase, calling from Noshville, a New York Style delicatessen in Nashville. Between mouthfuls from his lox plate special ("I prefer lox because it's real salty"), he let us know why he quit sports in high school, what Panic will play during their Orange Beach shows this spring and his latest musical obsession.

JamBase: You're doing another Mardi Gras Band tour that to me looks suspiciously like a ski vacation.

JoJo Hermann: Believe me, I wish. The ski vacation is when I play in Telluride on St. Patty's Day. That's where I go skiing. There won't be much time for skiing. We'll be playing pretty late every night, and will be playing a lot.

JamBase: It has been three years since we last spoke. The country has a new President, Panic has a new guitarist and the Rebels have a new coach.

JoJo's Mardi Gras Band
JoJo Hermann: I love Houston Nutt. He is just a great coach. Everyone in Oxford is psyched about Houston Nutt.

So, what's new with the Mardi Gras Band?

The original sax player, Max Abrams, went on the road with Big and Rich and the MuzikMafia. He was kind of working with them, but now he is going to be back out with us. So, now we have Jon Jackson and Max Abrams. Psyched about that, having both horn players. We will be doing a little tribute to Dr. John and his music on this run, so we're working up some Dr. John songs I'm psyched about.

You'll still be doing a lot of Longhair stuff, too?

It is still a Professor Longhair tribute band. You know, 'Fess and Mac were very tight. We're all part of the same family. We're just keeping it in the family.

We're you able to get any new material worked up for this tour?

We do have some. We have about five originals that are sounding pretty good. I think we will record them and put out some vinyl. I want to record some vinyl. I hear that is the way to go. That is what people are telling me now. Vinyl, not CDs. I need to come up with some old funky label and logo and all that stuff. We'll have fun with it.

And your lineup is just like the original one from the first time out?

There is one change. You know The Dynamites? Bill Elder plays with The Dynamites and is the musical arranger behind Charles Walker. Jon Jackson plays with The Dynamites, Max Abrams sits in with The Dynamites. Scott Patterson, he is the new percussion player from The Dynamites, so I basically raided The Dynamites and brought them out to Colorado.

Gotcha. So Hunter Williams is no longer with the band?

JoJo Hermann
Hunter had another engagement the same week, so he wasn't able to do this. He is still with us. He has tonsillitis and his tonsils are no good, so we just got a replacement drummer while he has tonsil surgery, but he'll be back with us. Kind of like Ringo.

Obviously you love Professor Longhair. What was it that attracted you to Professor Longhair and New Orleans music as a teenager?

I kind of went in the back door of learning about New Orleans music in a way. When I was in New York City, I was playing the club scene and I hooked up with a band called The Terrorists. They were a ska band, which was a very big thing back then, bands like The Specials, Madness, you know that ska revival that happened in the '80s. I got in this band The Terrorists and they taught me all about ska and blue beat and Jamaican music from the '50s. Then the bass player said to me as I was learning the piano rhythms, "You know all that stuff comes from this guy named Professor Longhair from New Orleans." How did that happen? In New Orleans back then, on the radio stations, Jamaica got the radio stations from New Orleans back in the '50s and ska kind of grew out of that, out of those rhythms. But Professor Longhair took a lot of it from Caribbean and rumba. He combined boogie and rumba. I kind of learned about it from Jamaican music and how much Jamaican music was influenced by Professor Longhair and vice versa. Then, he turned me onto a Longhair record and I was just hooked. I quit all my sports. I quit my basketball team, I quit my soccer team. I just went home like eight hours a day and learned to play Professor Longhair songs.

What was it about Longhair's approach and style? Here you were in New York City during the second-wave of ska and then you hear this Professor Longhair album that makes you stop everything else in life. What was it about his style that attracted you?

[It hit me] on two levels. First, there is just the instinctive level. Why does someone like one type of music as opposed to another? It just touches a nerve, it just hits your soul. It just made me happy. It just made me so happy. It was just so much fun to play. I kind of had to unlearn everything I knew and re-teach myself how to play music, because the rhythms are so different. I love Longhair in his own right. He is so brilliant the way he manipulated rhythms and weaved in and out of all these different rhythms. I was just fascinated by that. It just made me feel so good. Also, [it was] his lyrics, his outlook on life. I remember a song called "It's My Own Fault for Coming Home Early from Work Last Night." He kind of takes that blues thing, the "old poor me, I've got the blues because my woman left me" and he kind of says "fuck that." He just made fun of the whole thing. He just had an outlook on life that allowed him to absorb blues, his personal blues, and just shrug it off his shoulder a little bit and party. He used it as an excuse to party. I think that attracted me a lot. My girlfriend fucked me over... let's party.

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